In a funny counterpoint to sitting in Monday on His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s seminar on stewarding our global resources, today I was able to sneak out to a lunchtime seminar on The Future of the Aircraft Carrier at the MIT Security Studies Program. Now, if you’re reading this (Mom and Dad) and wondering, Does Josh actually have a job? I can only say that I am fortunate to have an employer that values work-life balance and to have a brief lull between peak work weeks. No, for real, I partake in the intellectual smorgasborg that is MIT as part of my immersion in a dynamic faculty/staff/student ecosystem that rewards (if only tacitly, not in terms of actual professional development points) general awareness of the Institute’s multiverse. K?
While some may regard my devotion to Adrienne Rich and spending most of my career in the People’s Republic of Cambridge (not to mention veganism!) as sure signs of a pacifist hair-shirt outlook, in fact I grew up just as fascinated by war as the next lad. I fondly remember the aircraft carrier exhibit at the Air and Space Museum growing up, which may be updated now but still apparently has a bosun’s whistle piercing the air, and the Zeroes and Corsairs and other planes that were part of it. And I’ve been very interested in China’s efforts to become a carrier power at sea–punctuated just this week by “touch-and-go” operations of a land-based fighter plane on their Ukrainian-built carrier Liaoning–as part of their efforts to sort of become a responsible global power while sort of not. [If you also find this compelling please read Jim Fallows' new book on aviation as a lens for China's growth, China Airborne, and tell me how it is.] So this was a happy opportunity.
The seminar was by Prof. Robert “Barney” Rubel (Barney Rubble–get it?), the Dean of the Center for Naval Warfare Studies at the U.S. Naval War College in beautiful Newport, RI. Rubel has the air of the salty 30-year carrier pilot vet he is, and doesn’t mind saying he likes ‘em big when it comes to carriers, citing the disproportionate advantage the 100,000-ton Nimitz class carriers have over smaller ships in terms of “what we can throw off the front end.” He alluded to the irresistible appeal of carriers by quoting a colleague: “Don’t ever let a US President on a carrier, or he’ll let the Navy build as many as they want.” But the seminar was primarily about the arc of the carrier’s role, from initially (in the pre-WWII era) being the eyes of the fleet, to its current status as geopolitical icon and center of the fleet, to perhaps a future role as something other than top banana.
Without getting into all the details, Rubel defended vigorously the carrier’s unique ability to serve as a floating airfield–for example, providing the only operational tactical air power for the first few weeks of Gulf War I–while also noting that politicians and Naval leaders often break rules of naval disposition of forces (like not getting tied down to a land position) in order to wave the big stick of a carrier group, and that the threats to carriers of land-based missiles are now getting cheaper and more reliable. He suggested that carriers basically should never go into the Persian Gulf or the Straits of Hormuz and risk attack by small boats. The most interesting trend is towards switching out all or part of the manned tactical aircraft that now fly from carriers in favor of long-distance UAVs and/or advanced missiles. The carrier would then remain a sovereign (in every sense) airfield but regain flexibility, the ability to stand off further from shore/targets, etc.
Rubel closed by talking about how the mission of the US and allied navies is to protect the global system of commerce, travel and communications, and that carrier operations and whether or not to build them should be seen in light of that mission. Interestingly, he said that he often travels to China and that he and his colleagues keep pushing the PLAN (Chinese navy) to build carriers–better that than invest in more surface-based missiles that the Chinese 2nd Artillery can use to blast US ships in a hypothetical conflict about/near Taiwan. But the real reason they push China towards a carrier is as part of a broader campaign to get them to embrace their responsibilities as a global power to join in the defense of the global system of which they are an essential part. The Chinese development of their carrier, in parallel with/in opposition to the “Asian pivot” of US military forces, will be one interesting lens through which to observe how much the Chinese take on a role of globally-minded superpower. And for kids, a 1/350 scale model is now available!